Tuesday, March 3, 2009

End of Winter Indulgence #2: Ben's Cookies

one-stop wintery indulgence shop

Mmmmmm....cookies. Very few things can, in such a small amount of matter, encapsulate so many of the reasons why life is very much worth living nearly as well as a good cookie does. And in the hierarchy of cookies, the chocolate chip (with nuts) is absolutely and positively at the very King-of-the-Jungle tippy top, in my humble opinion.

Mexican or not, my family adopted the tradition of baking chocolate chip cookies during the
holidays from the time I was a small child. My mother's cookies were always the Toll House recipe on the packet and yet tasted so much more delicious than that sounds. They were chunky creations, chock-full of chocolate and pecans or walnuts, light in color from the copious amounts of butter and granulated sugar, and were the kind that tasted good even when they'd gone stale - not that it happened often given how quickly we generally devoured them.

Over the years, I've become somewhat of a cookie snob. This snobbery, while kept on the DL, eventually became problematic when a) I moved out of my parents' house and b) I left the country to live in Europe for the first time. A lot of this can be explained by a couple of factors:

1. My mom's recipe never worked for me - I always found my own attempts at it generated dried out cookies with an unreasonably high dough to chocolate/nut ratio.

2. Additionally, I generally hate store-bought chocolate chip cookies and avoid them like the plague. Has anybody else noticed that Chips Ahoy! changed their recipe sometime in the past ten years? They just don't look or taste the same to me - and they're smaller and chewier! :(

3. Italy and the UK are not exactly the easiest places to find good ingredients for chocolate chip
cookies, or find them pre-made by either an individual or a corporation. The ingredients and chocolate chip cookies you do find in Europe are generally a foreigners attempt to recreate what they think is the real McCoy. But if you're American, you know better.
Not to mention, selling chocolate chips in 100g bags to me is simply laughable. Give me the 1lb bags or stop wasting my time. Thank God for Partridges.

4. Lastly, and maybe most harshly, I find I usually just don't like other peoples' cookies much either because they fall short of my (perhaps unreasonably high?) expectations in a couple of categories - mostly the three non-negotiables of chocolate chip cookies.

* * *

The Three Non-Negotiables of Chocolate Chip Cookies
you know this, even if you may not know you know this

Dough to Chocolate (& Nut) Ratio
Perhaps in Europe a shady dough to chocolate (& nut) ratio could be explained or excused due to the aforementioned selling of chocolate chips in 100g bags. Now, this argument goes only so far because what Europe does have that a lot of chocolate-chip-home-baking-Americans generally do not is a veritable cornucopia of artisan chocolate bars which can be easily and relatively inexpensively chopped into delicious chocolate CHUNKS (a more than respectable substitute for chocolate chips)!

In the US, I find people constantly offer me home baked chocolate chip cookies which are about 90% dough and only 10% chocolate/nuts. For me, this blasphemy is not mitigated by mentioning that the cookies are "home baked." I don't care
who baked them if they have that little chocolate and nuts in them! To me the ratio has to be at least 80:20 and ideally 75:25.

Oh, and if there are no nuts in your cookies, you automatically fall a couple of notches on my respectability scale. Sorry, that's just how I roll.

2. The Chewiness Factor
This is determined both by how long the cookies are baked and how much of what kind of sugar is used in the recipe. My favorite recipe uses both white granulated and light brown sugar.

There has to be balance so that the cookie isn't too dark, too light, too crispy or too chewy.
When my ideal cookies come out of the oven, they are still very soft in the middle and appear relatively thin. Once they cool, however, they reveal their deceptively complex nature.

Despite appearing to lack in chunkiness (which is often mistaken for gooiness) it is only the edges
which are crispity-crunchy, while the center is a molten explosion of chewy and oozey chocolatey-nutty ambrosia. Good chocolate chip cookies don't crumble. They ooze and fall apart due to excess of melted chocolate and tender sugary dough which is cooked but not killed.

Uncompromising Fattiness
Lastly, and I take this point quite seriously, is the quality of ingredients in the cookies. I'm not the type of person to tell you that if you don't have organic, hand-churned butter from rare-breed cows in Normandy your baked goods are crap. I find that snooty, unrealistic and, frankly, annoying. But I will say, for God's sake, get REAL butter!

I'm not even a huge butter-eater, but since I moved to the UK I have been mesmerized by the
deliciously creamy, yellow look of the Irish and British butters which we get at the stores. They are full-fat, uncompromised fat. And that's what gives good chocolate chip cookies (and any baked goods, really) the intangible but comforting taste of an indulgence.

Likewise, don't go and get real butter then pour a big cup full of Splenda in your batter. Don't get me wrong - I use Splenda. In fact I'm a big fan and even carry one of those little Splenda pill dispensers in my purse - but it goes in my hot drinks and that's where the buck stops. I cannot believe people use it for baking (unless, of course, there are medical reasons for this), and I do have to say that once I know they do it, in my mind, I judge them.

* * *

And so, after years of feeling like my cookies were crap and everyone else's were too, I finally
found a recipe that worked for me. I pinched, tweaked, and finagled until I got it just right. After about 3 years of experimental madness, I have what I would consider one of the best chocolate chip cookie recipes I've ever tasted, and I, therefore, generally guard it with my life. (Unless of course I like you, in which case I'll give it out.)

Feeling somewhat more at peace about the whole issue has, in a sense, set me free. Which is why (though it could have been pregnancy too), about a month ago, when Matt and I were strolling through South Kensington, I almost knocked him over to get in the door at Ben's Cookies.

the display

Ben's Cookies is an unassuming (very) little shop right smack dab in the center of South Kensington. They have 9 other locations, but I like this one because it's right next to the Tube and is a great stop if you've just had dinner at
Carluccio's or any of the other million and a half eating establishments that rock in the area.

Their cookies are good because they more than fulfill the non-negotiables (they offer non-nut cookies too) and are guaranteed to be served warm and gooey, because everything is 1) baked on premises and 2) rewarmed for you in their little oven when you order it.

They usually have at least six or seven different flavors on display, and even though the dough to chocolate / nut ratio may appear to be off at first sight, this is only due to what I can only describe as the gargantuan-chunkalicious-chunks of chocolate / fruit / nuts / fillings that Ben's Cookies puts in their creations. You bite in and immediately you are grateful that the entire exterior ring of cookie is made of dough, otherwise you'd be eating pure chocolate. Not a bad thing in and of itself, but not necessarily
the "cookie" experience we might want or be looking for.

Giant, overwhelming amounts of chocolate...

There were a few other shocks to my system besides the tastiness of Ben's cookies:

For one thing, it's a British company. Their first store started in Oxford's Covered Market. Their founder, Helge Rubinstein, who does not sound British, has apparently also written a book on chocolate which does not appear to be in huge demand, unlike Ben's cookies.

Their stand-shops are set up surprisingly efficiently with small spaces which include just enough room for a counter display, an oven, and a cash register. The cookies come in little paper pouches, warm and toasty and deliciously sinful. No frills, just cookie goodness. And a really cute logo which was created especially for Ben's Cookies by the acclaimed children's book illustrator Quentin Blake (the guy who did Roald Dahl's stuff!).

Roald Dahl's midgety little Matilda by Quentin Blake;
she should be daintily nibbling on a Ben's Cookie.

Conveniently enough, though, you can also order their cookies packaged up and ready for a party. It seems like given the quantity of high-cost ingredients that go into these (they do not skimp on the fattiness factor, with each cookie racking in an impressive ~450 calories), the cost (determined by weight, not quantity) would probably not be low (either financially or physically). It's your call if you want to go there.

Despite being a British company, they have actually expanded to the US of A. Oddly enough, their only American location is in Salt Lake City, Utah (which makes me question how successful the chain has been - no offense to you Salt Lakers). So if you ever wanted or needed a reason to go there, now you have one that does not necessarily have to involve nature and / or the Church of Latter Day Saints, if either of those things give you pause.

Ben's Chocolate & Nut Cookie; yes, that is a whole walnut half!

Matt and I tried their original creation: Ben's chocolate and nut cookie. We were not disappointe
d. I wanted to go back and get another one, but we'd already entered the Tube turnstile and Matt wouldn't let me blow an extra GBP2.00 plus the cost of the cookie (sold by weight, remember!) just to indulge my craving.

Probably a good call on his part as my sticky little paws did not need to do any more damage...that day. :)
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  1. I know well the craving for home food when you live or travel abroad. I had great fun reading the post and will be sure to add Ben's Cookies to my list of musts in London.

  2. he he he, love the rules about cookies :))
    And I agree strongly with the choco/nut proportions! :))

  3. We have a pretty good chocolate chip cookie recipe, if you're interested.

    Thanks for adding us as a friend on Foodbuzz. We welcome you to come visit our site!

  4. Those are mighty fine cookies! Hear, hear for your non-negotiables of chochipcookies although Mr. Noodle is even more hardcore: he prefers closer to a 60:40 ratio of dough:chips. I must confess that in a bout of nutritional piety, I attempted to substitute apple sauce for some of the butter. No need to go into horrid detail. I beg forgiveness.

  5. I moved from the UK to the States a year and a half ago...and have never found anything here to rival Ben's Cookies' chocolate chip cookies! If only I could find their secret recipe - any ideas? Maybe I should relocate to Utah...

  6. Hmmm...perhaps I should make it my mission to recreate Ben's cookies at home now. :) I'll keep you posted on my endeavors, Rachel - hope you are enjoying the US!

  7. I have lots of problems when it comes to making cookies -- main problem bieng they are alwyas fat and its so dissapointing. Anyways you all seem like experts and I was just wondering if you'd be kind enough to give me you version of a Ben's cookie recipe.

  8. Sadly, I have not yet developed my version of Ben's Cookies yet...I really do need to get on that. With the winter approaching, no doubt I will!

  9. Hey Brenda,
    I love this page! I totally agree with everthing that you have said, for years I to have been going through a cookie madness to try and make a good cookie trying to meet the same requirements.I'm almost on the verge of giving up this search because I feel I'm wasting so many ingredients. I have asked all my american friends and nothing has really worked and I have come to the conclusion that maybe there is a difference in the flour there.
    Anyways, I have noticed you only give your recipe to those you know and like, but I'm really desperate for a good recipe, and would love if you could give me yours or do a trade?
    Happy New Year.

  10. WOW!!! I would love to be able to make a replica of Ben's cookies especially after my cookie madness aswell. If you manage to develop a good recipe I would love to have it!

  11. Tatjana:
    hi if anyone has a replica recipe of Bens cookies- can you please share- I would much appreciate it - to all good natured people out there who are willing to share, please send it to me at tvesel@hotmail.com. Also, if you have any similar recipe to Bens cookies, I would not mind trying that one as well. Many warm cheers

  12. Whoohoo....I just ate my last Ben's Cookie yesterday enroute to DXB !!
    My all time fave, Choc chip/orange, yum! I concur, there's no other cookie that tastes quite like Ben's Cookies and believe you me, I have tried some cookies over the years. Kudos to Helge, she has done a fine job for our taste buds but alas, a disaster for the waist line and the hips, ...(:-()......Jen

  13. Thanks for the comment Jen! I am missing Ben's Cookies now that I'm no longer in London. :)

  14. I thought no one felt about cookies the way I do. How wrong I was. It was a pleasure to read this - it brought back mouthwatering memories of Ben's Cookies. When's there going to be an Aussie location?

  15. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. :)

  16. Hello! I came across this blog in my never-ending search for a recipe to rival Ben's Cookies (I used to live in London, am now back in Australia). I'm a long-time cake baker but am just venturing into the world of cookies. All the ones I've tried to make are tasty but too 'short'; I really want a recipe that has an element of chewy or gooeyness to them! Any chance I might pick your brains for your choc/nut creation?

  17. Hi Louisa, would love to share my cookie recipe for you. Please email me through my profile above and I will get back to you with it! :)

  18. Hi! Brenda I would appreciate you to share the recipe for cookies with me, took a long time trying different recipes and I can not seem to be Ben's cookies would be so kind as to shackle? my mail is thaisfranco2@hotmail.com.
    Congratulations on your blog is very entertaining, I speak little English but with the translator helps me and I could understand almost everything. Best wishes from Spain (Barcelona)

  19. Happened across Ben's cookies while in Oxford. My family and i were stranded in london this past christmas because ofthe snow. Finding this cookie was the best part of not making it to our destination to Vienna. This was the best cookie I have ever had. The Ginger and chocolate chip was heavenly. I wish I could find a respectable recipe. Ifyou have any out there please email COOKIES to bfgjose2@hotmail.com.

  20. i have found a recipe that is quite similar at http://www.pigpigscorner.com/2008/07/chewy-cookie.html good luck!

  21. Dear Brenda,

    I just love Ben's cookies, there literally is nothing better! The stores are just so quant and the variety is amazing. I love making cupcakes and blondies, though I find it hard to get cookies right gooey / chewy texture. I was just wondering perhaps if you would be kind enough to share your cookie recipe with me? Thanks!

    1. Hi Jennifer, thanks for stopping by! Please email me through blogger and I can send you my recipe - though I warn you it's not really a Ben's cookies recipe, it's just my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe.

  22. Dear Brenda,

    I moved from England back home almost a year ago. I really do miss the UK a lot and I remembered going to Covent Garden every weekend to get a box of Ben's cookies. Unfortunately, there's no Ben's cookies or anything similar to it where I'm currently settling down :(
    Please kindly share Ben's cookies recipe with me at PAIR_2P@HOTMAIL.COM.

    Very much appreciated and have a nice day :)